Driver to get route back

She says diverting bus for sick child led to suspension

`Nitpicking everything'

Lawyer says client singled out after she led pupils in prayer

February 28, 2002|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Stella N. Tsourakis, the school bus driver suspended this week by the Carroll County school system, will return to her usual route Monday after missing a week for failing to follow her prescribed route while taking middle school children home recently and other infractions.

Tsourakis, who was reprimanded by school officials for leading her passengers in prayer after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, said one reason she was suspended was for taking a sick child home before following the usual route from Shiloh Middle School near Hampstead.

"I went off the route to [the sick boy's] stop," she said. Because the child was vomiting, she reversed course and headed south to his stop along Route 91, rather than beginning at the north end near Shiloh.

"They are nitpicking everything they can find," she said, after a 1 1/2 -hour closed meeting yesterday in Westminster with school transportation officials.

In addition to not following her route, Tsourakis said officials discussed incidents in which she drove 5 mph over the speed limit; pulled over at what they considered an unsafe spot on the shoulder to check whether all pupils had been dropped off; and allowed her high school-age son to ride her bus, which is permitted.

The incidents were noted by school transportation officials monitoring her driving, which is done occasionally with drivers, and more so with new ones, they said.

But Tsourakis and her attorney, Steven L. Tiedemann, think she has been singled out. They said the supposed violations stem from when she initiated a prayer in mid-October for victims of the attacks Sept. 11.

When she was told to stop, she did, but the pupils continued, and were joined by students on her North Carroll High School route.

"They have found some technical violations. The problem for us is the timing," Tiedemann said.

Charles I. Ecker, the county's interim school superintendent, said again yesterday that he could not discuss Tsourakis' case, except to say, "It was not because of praying on the bus."

He had prepared a release form for Tsourakis that would allow him to discuss the reasons for her suspensions.

"If she signs that release form, then I can talk," Ecker said.

Tsourakis said she would consider signing it, but Tiedemann said he saw no benefit to allowing school officials to talk about his client. It remained unsigned yesterday.

`Family values'

Tiedemann has been retained by the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization for "winning the legal battle for family values, religious freedom and the sanctity of human life," according to its Web site.

"This all started with the Lord's prayer," Tsourakis said, trembling before a cluster of reporters and television cameras.

"I think they're after me for religious beliefs. For God's sake, President Bush is the one who told us to pray. For Christ's sake, we're at war here. What is this county coming to?"

Tsourakis and Tiedemann said they plan to file a federal lawsuit Monday because she wants to pray with the students - and they say she can because she is not a school system employee.

The attorney prepared a flier that Tsourakis plans to distribute asking "anyone with facts regarding the dispute with the school system (or) knowledge of any harassment of Ms. Tsourakis" to call him. It also invited children and their parents to join the lawsuit "because their right to pray has also been violated."

Second job

Tsourakis, 37, of Manchester is a Greek Orthodox mother of three and works a second job in a nursing home.

She has been driving charter routes in other counties since she was suspended Monday afternoon from driving her Carroll route, said a representative at Schaffer's Mulch and Bus Service.

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